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Nomadism and Civilisation

'In the beginning God created heavens and the earth.' So does Holy Scripture declare the foundat dualism of reality, a dualism to which a man is inured. Life and death, day and night, heat and cold, summer and winter, cohabit in the mind organically. Culture and civilisation long sustained comparable dualism - and most literally so in that region of Euro-Asia comprising today's Kazakhstan - in the nomadic and settled modes of existence. It was, always, a dualism dramatised in that same first book of the Bible Genesis, which narrates the symbolic murder of Abel, herdsman, by his brother Cain, cultivator. The settler killed the nomad, on the grounds that the Creator himself recognised wandering herdsman as closer to Him than the settled cultivator.

For many centuries the nomadic tribes of central Asia were surrounded and even interspersed by settled communities. Only now we are learning something of the cultures of those peoples, and we still know almost nothing of the historical happenings, least of the nomadic tribes whose role in the past it is sometimes more convenient to overlook - as indeed is their role down to the present day. We should however remember the very foundational inventions that emerged among those supposedly primitive wandering peoples: the calendar, metallurgy, the art of writing, chemistry, domestication of the horse, development of the boot and the saddle and the bridle the list could go on and on. Those of the settled communities have had no right to presume a lesser sophistication among their nomadic fellows.

We will do well to remember that while settled civilisations were still pagan, it was the nomadic tribes which wrestled out a meaning to life and nature in loyalty to an almighty, single and invisible god, and aspired to come closer to him and to be his servant to the last breath through structures of discipline and perception such as may be said to prevail to this day.

From time immemorial, nomadic tribes, or hordes, have been roaming the boundless Steppe of Central Asia. The groups ramified according to ancient tradition; the eldest son of the leader of the tribe, born of his senior wife, would stay with the tribe to become the legal heir to his father while the younger sons, or those born to other wives and concubines, would frequently comprise a cadre which would become the core of a new tribe, a new ethno-political unit. According to oral tradition, just such a division is cited as the origin of the juzes identifiable in Kazakh society down to the present day. 

The pastoralists ranged, of course, relentlessly and widely, forever moving on for the sake of richer grazing for their horses and their sheep. Migrations were often seasonal. At times they covered many hundreds of square miles. In the course of such journeys, Kazakh nomads wove for themselves an imperishable and precious intimacy with their land and its natural treasures. They could extract gold with unprecedented ease. In summer, during the tribes' seasonal migration, a fleece would be weighted on a riverbed to collect particles of alluvial gold. Upon the tribes' return, the fleece would be sheared, burned, and a gold ingot the size of a horse's hoof would result. The tay tayak (the horse's hoof) was a unit of gold for a long period: a measure of golden metal rather than money, since gold was not fabricated as currency. Usage of gold was essentially spiritual - as emblems of priestly office, of prizes for physical prowess in ritual sport, or as adornment of the sacral ceremony of marriage. Kazakhstan's inherited treasure Scythian gold artefacts tell the tale. The ore meant for the Kazakhs' ancestors the highest spiritual revelation, the reward of a hazardous and intricate procedure, of which word leaked into the mythology of classical Greece in the story of Jason's ultimately ill-fated journey to the region of Colchis east of the Black Sea - that territory which arguably lay across Scythian culture's most westerly frontier. The nomad's fleece was mythic and mystic authority.

The 'black legend' of nomadic tribal warriors appears and spreads throughout Europe in the Dark Ages. The word 'horde', whose Turkic root meant the nomadic kraal, became synonymous with the mobile tribal army of the Steppe, and hence a greatly feared, barbarous collectivity that the Mongolian warlord, Genghis Khan, came to exemplify. Yet etymologists know 'horde' also as a phonetic variant of the word 'order', sharing a definition as an 'elite spiritual and military organisation', and rooted in the Sanskrit rta, which combination of sounds implied the order and harmony of creation for all humanity.

To those reared in the tradition that sees Europe as the fountainhead of civilisation, this juxtaposition of the word 'horde' and 'order' would seem to baulk the historical reality of Mongolian expansionism in the early thirteenth century. Let us bear in mind earlier facts. The nomadic Turkic peoples (who were the first to be subdued and to some extent absorbed by Genghis) wanted to enjoy trade with the farmers and artisans of surrounding settled - and in particular, Chinese - peoples. The Chinese empire deemed such proposals as the height of impudence, and to its own detriment spurned any such participation; instead it sought to round up the nomad 'hordes' like wild beasts. Despite their unquestioned military mastery, the nomads were withheld from responding equivalently to such hostility by their reverence for the Oneness of God and His creation. This sustaining constant of the pre-Islamic (and for the most part pre-Christian) religious ideal under the nomadic ancestry of central Asia has been encapsulated by the nineteenth-century Russian sage, Vladimir Soloviev: 'The national ethos is not what a people thinks about itself but what God thinks about a people.'

The submission of the nomads was not to be permanent. As we have seen, the nomadic spirit and urban culture were not always compatible. Genghis Khan in his Yassa - his 'manifesto' - awakened the Turko-Mongolian people of his forging of a global mission. Genghis's aim was the unification of nomadic tribes and the building of a nomadic empire. He confronted the Chinese empire and other settled powers to the south-west and west of his Central Asian territory, and he prevailed. He himself, his generals and descendants were successful against the Chinese, Russians, Germans, Arabs and Persians - against, indeed, Islam and Christendom alike. In an astonishingly short time he radically changed the ethno-political map of the late mediaeval world: his empire stretched from the eastern reaches of China and the Korean peninsula to the territory of modern Poland, and from territory bordering today's Saudi Arabia almost to Finland. The Central Asian 'nomadic' empire controlled all these territories. Genghis Khan had instructed his descendants to take the Silk Road under their control from sea to sea. It was nearly achieved.

Today we can only speculate how and why that expansion came to a halt. And the world knows that the more self-regarding, more refined civilisation becomes, the weaker it grows. From our own point in history we can survey the decline and mighty falls of the ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines. The list is long. What happened to Genghis's empire? Behold, great numbers had become Nestonan Christians; and, under Timur's dominance and inspiration, Muslim.


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